Teaching writing in middle and high school is often a bone of contention. Some people hate it; others love it. Writing is not everyone’s strong suit, and it’s certainly one of the more challenging aspects of teaching ELA. Within our field, there’s a division regarding how writing should be incorporated — stand alone units or paired with literature. In this post, I’m offering suggestions for balancing reading and writing instruction.
English teachers have a responsibility to demonstrate our experiences with and feelings about writing to our students. We need to be honest while also teaching students the importance of overcoming our struggles because of the critical role of the skill in life. If you’re looking for new opportunities to pair literature with writing…and to balance the two…keep reading. These ideas for balancing reading and writing have proven successful for me with various levels of high school students over the last decade.
BUILD A STRONG FOUNDATION
Regardless of whether it’s paired with literature or taught in isolation, in order to successfully teach writing, you need a common vocabulary. It would be ideal if the entire department used the same language so that there would be uniformity between teachers and grade levels so as to avoid confusing students. If that’s not possible, at least determine the terminology you will use consistently in your classroom.
- Grammar. It must be part of a successful writing program. Use mentor sentences and mini-lessons. Analyze it in texts you read in class. Have students demonstrate the skills in their writing. Students must see the transfer of grammar instruction cross over into writing expectations. Not convinced? Read more about “why grammar” here.
- The Writing Process. I begin every school year with a writing process lesson. Students must understand your expectations regarding every piece of writing they compose for your course. Is pre-writing a must? If so, emphasize it. How important are revision and editing? Stress that.
- Traits of Writing. Different systems exist for teaching students to talk about their writing. These categories are important. I enjoy using the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing model. The traits are relatively easy for my secondary students to understand and put into practice.
- Research Skills. Your students will need repetition with research skills. Ahead of time, determine when you are going to introduce terms like plagiarism, paraphrasing, directly quoting, in-text citations, and Works Cited page. I’ve found it’s best to introduce all of them early, but to continue emphasizing them throughout the year, not expecting mastery until the final paper.
IDEAS FOR BALANCING READING AND WRITING
Once the language and expectations are set, it’s time to start writing. Teachers often chat about how to teach writing. Balancing reading and writing in a forty-five minute class period presents unique challenges. Specifically, how can we incorporate both in the classroom without feeling overwhelmed? So, let’s look at some particulars. These are a handful of ways I have successfully paired and alternated writing and reading units in my classroom, but they are by no means the only ways.
Keep in mind that when combining literature and writing, there should always be learning targets and focus skills. Let’s not just assign writing for the sake of doing it. Instead, let’s consider what specific writing skills we want students to be practicing with each assignment. Here are some suggestions for balancing reading and writing. Each heading indicates the type of text students might be reading, followed by specifics for types of writing that would pair well.
- Research Writing: Have students conduct background research on an aspect of Shakespeare’s life or the culture of the time period. They can turn this information into a research paper and class presentation. With research writing, you could gear instruction toward the thesis statement, main ideas, and development of those ideas along with research citation skills.
- Narrative Writing: Students can re-write a scene of the play. Teach them the structure of a play, and have them focus on incorporating elements of narration, pacing, and suspense.
- Real-Life Writing: Students can write diary entries from characters’ points of view. Diaries are perfect vehicle for teaching the difference between formal and informal writing, colloquial and professional language, and the time and place for conversational words and phrases.
- Research Writing: During third nine weeks, I always have my students read high-interest nonfiction texts. Using articles and nonfiction book excerpts as a spring board, we simultaneously learn about how to find credible sources, how to embed citations in research writing, how to avoid plagiarizing, and how to use research to support arguments.
- Editorials: One assignment my students have always enjoyed is writing their own editorial or opinion column after analyzing some as a class. It gives them a voice and allows them to practice the art of persuasion. We recently had a student write an authentic piece that was published by the local newspaper, which made this assignment more relevant to them.
- Emails: I’ve noticed that freshmen have no idea how to write an email to a teacher. Their tone is often abrasive and demanding. In their defense, they usually haven’t been taught email etiquette. Each school year, I incorporate email writing skills into my curriculum. We talk about tone, and they practice sending me emails expressing professional, well-worded, and polite complaints or requests.
- Post-Cards: Have students write post-cards from Odysseus to Penelope while you are reading The Odyssey. This activity is great for point-of-view and inferring as well as for helping students to reflect on the events in the story.
- Narrative Writing: Students can write children’s books. Assign them a mythical monster (there are so many of them, and students usually enjoy learning about these fantastical creatures) and a god or goddess. Teach students about the rules for formatting and punctuating dialogue. This assignment is challenging because they have to adapt the content so that it’s appropriate for the age group. Audience consideration must be a priority here.
- Informative Writing: Compare and contrast different versions of stories in mythology. For example, how many versions of how the world is created can students find? Have them choose two and write about similarities and differences. Or, have students explore the beliefs people held during the time period in which the stories were created. My students often ask, “Did people really believe this stuff?” Open research writing opportunity!
- Analytical Writing: Focusing on theme, plot, character development, symbolism, or something similar, students can analyze a single short story, or they can synthesize information for a group of short stories in an analytical essay format.
- Summarizing: On a more traditional note, summarizing is an important skill both in the reading and writing worlds. An easy, painless way to incorporate regular writing with reading is to ask students to summarize the story they read. I teach my students to stick to a five-sentence summary format for fiction, which forces them to be concise (as fictional summaries can sometimes be more like paraphrases!). They learn early on that they only have one sentence to summarize each part of the story’s plot. It’s a challenging writing assignment for some middle and high school students, but it’s beneficial.
- Response to Literature: A simple way to incorporate writing with literature circles is to ask students to journal or write low-pressure responses to literature. I usually construct my literature circle units with a rotating schedule. On day 1: Instruction and Discussion (we talk about a term, like epiphany, diction, coming-of-age, and theme and discuss how that term is used by authors). Day 2: Students have a read day. On day 3: Students respond to that portion of their reading in journal format, and then they spend the rest of the class period discussing the book with their literature circle group. This cycle is simple, predictable, and effective. It’s great for pairing literature and composition.
- Cause and Effect Writing: With sophomores, I have paired literature circle novels (like Fahrenheit 451, Secret Life of Bees, and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter just to name a few) with cultural and social issues. Students identify an issue from the novel they read, and they explore that issue in real life in the form of a cause and effect research paper. This assignment makes the issues in the novel relevant to their world.
- Analytical Writing: When reading books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies, have students identify and analyze underlying conflicts. For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect text to study human rights issues. Lord of the Flies provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore human nature. By studying the details of the conflict in the text, students can extend their understanding of that issue by connecting it to real-life problems.
- Argumentative Writing: With whole-class novels, students are always willing to debate their opinion regarding whether or not they like it, whether it’s worth reading, and whether or not it’s appropriate. Consider having students write a debate piece or argumentative essay about your class novels. They can answer questions like: Does this novel have a place in 21st century educational curriculum? and Should this novel be banned due to inappropriate content?
- Evaluative Writing: When students are all reading different books, it can be fun to study covers. What marketing techniques did the publishing company use, and are they effective? Book cover activities can be a great way for peers to share book recommendations as well.
- Analytical Writing: Ask students to analyze the cultural elements and undertones of their favorite film. What message does the film send about that culture? Are there any countercultures, stereotypes, or biases present? How does the film impact the audience’s view in light of these stated and unstated messages?
- Analytical Writing: Short films are the perfect vehicle to analyze literary elements. One of the essays my students most enjoy is when I ask them to write a couple pages about a short film of their choosing. I ask them to interpret an unstated message in the film (which is usually simple since short films are lacking in dialogue), and they must support that interpretation with evidence from the visual text. I usually model how to do this kind of writing with“For the Birds.”
Hopefully you have some new ideas for balancing reading and writing in your curriculum. If this post inspired you or reminded you of a good idea, please share it in the comments so that we have a growing resource bank for teachers who are looking for new approaches! We value your input.
Looking for ideas to scaffold writing for struggling students? You can read about simple, practical ideas to support at-risk students here.